Watching Out For Those Dykes – The Essential Bechdel
by Alison Bechdel
published by Random House.
When Fun Home was released to near universal acclaim a few years ago it was easy to overlook that Alison Bechdel had been diligently working away on Dykes To Watch Out For since 1983. Not quite the overnight sensation many had her down as really. Unfortunately, after 25 years of a twice monthly comic strip Bechdel has decided to put Dykes To Watch Out For on hold. Whether it’s a temporary sabbatical while she works on another graphic memoir, a thematic follow up to Fun Home, or whether it’s a permanent end to this much loved strip isn’t sure and it sounds like even Bechdel isn’t sure about the future of the strip.
So the timing of this wonderful collection couldn’t really be better, collecting the majority of the 527 strips (74% of the total according to a post on Bechdel’s blog) including the final couple of hundred, uncollected until now. Personally, I really would like to see her revisit these wonderful characters. Having seen them grow up on the page it seems a terrible shame to not see them grow old as well. I hope Bechdel returns to Dykes. Because I know I’d be returning as well.
(Alison Bechdel demonstrates just how many Dykes To Watch Out For makes up an Essential collection. Via Bechdel’s Flickr stream.)
Dykes is / was Bechdel’s masterpiece of relationship comedy where incredibly compelling and involving tales followed the lives and loves of a disparate group of (mostly) lesbian and gay friends. I first discovered it many years ago, as a blessed refuge from the comics of the day when I would find myself complaining long and loud to anyone who would listen that there just wasn’t anything in comics that even went halfway towards mainstream (real mainstream) acceptance. Where was the comic equivalent of a pure serialised drama and soap opera, so popular in the real mainstream but nowhere to be seen in comics?
Not coincidentally as I found myself drifting away from the comics I’d read as a teen, I gravitated towards the growing autobiographical scene best exemplified by Chester Brown, Joe Matt, Seth and many others in the late 80s, early 90s. From here it was but a short stroll into lesbian and gay comics and suddenly I realised that the mainstream soap operas I’d always wanted to see were here all along. They were just hidden behind the counter(culture). Books like Leonard & Larry, Howard Cruse’s beautifully moving Stuck Rubber Baby and Andy Mangel’s excellent Gay Comics anthology became required reading. In all of these incredibly good gay and lesbian comics the comparisons with the soap operas are everywhere. Strong, disparate casts of characters. Everyday events unfolding across the course of many episodes, mostly dealing with the lives and loves of the characters in all shapes and sizes. That the comics tend to set their characters into a rather harsher world of prejudice and hatred didn’t disguise the fact that these were deeply personal stories, usually with a healthy dose of funny in there as well.
(From Bechdel’s 12 page introduction strip in the Essential Dykes To Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel. Published Jonathan Cape)
Such is the case with Bechdel’s Dykes. I never managed to religiously follow it when I got into it around 1991, catching the odd book here and there. So actually sitting down open the book properly over Christmas with the time to properly follow these characters lives over a virtually real time 25 years is a great pleasure.
It starts with a personal introduction from Bechdel, where the lightweight, laugh aloud funny and self mocking realisation of “Good God. ….. I forgot to get a job” from Bechdel followed by an exploration of her early years and the way she rather fell into both cartooning and Dykes To Watch Out For back in ’83 is knowing and funny, really funny.
Of course, Bechdel is also a thinker, and the questions to the reader start early on in this introduction. If her Dykes is an expression of Lesbian reality rather than Lesbian ideals, of a group of people first and foremost, then what does it mean when, over the years, her Dykes have gone on to become idealised examples of their own. Choking on her own realisation at the end of her introduction, she asks the reader:
“Have I churned out episodes of this comic strip every two weeks for decades merely to prove that we’re the same as everyone else? Here. You decide. Essentially the same? Or essentially different?”
(Essentially the same or essentially different? More from the introduction to the Essential Dykes To Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel)
It’s a moot question really. Her Dykes are certainly part of a mainstream, just through their longevity and ubiquity but they also exist outside of the mainstream of the redtop newspaper reading, soap opera viewing, top 40 listening populous. The trick is to realise that there are many different mainstreams now; society has fractured, expanded and grown along with Bechdels Dykes. We’re the better for it and so are they, since we’re all now essentially the same and essentially different.
On reading this over the last few weeks – definitely the best way to read the Essential Dykes, small and regular chunks means a continuous development and no chance of overdosing – it’s amazing how quickly Bechdel settled into the strip and introduced us to her cast of characters that would be around for the next 25 years. Her main protagonist, and the glue that bonds all of it together is Mo; neurotic feminist book clerk, desperate for love, yet terrified of failing in love and far too idealistic and committed for her own good.
(Breathe in, breathe out. Mo really ought to learn to calm down. A Dykes strip from 1987 collected in Essential Dykes To Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel.)
So Mo becomes the perfect foil for Bechdel to set everything around, and as she grows up along with her diverse and eclectic groups of friends we see the Lesbian and Gay movement grow alongside her. The once young, idealistic Mo gradually finds herself part of an accepted mainstream. It’s something that takes place slowly, furtively and it’s as shocking for Mo to discover that she’s suddenly part of the mainstream as one imagines from the introduction that Bechdel herself felt.
The very clever thing about Dykes is that it’s an overtly political and socially aware comic strip that rarely feels preachy. Every other sentiment is in there, from deep joy, happiness, contentment, ennui, sadness, despair and much more. But never preachiness. And despite it’s lightness of tone, it continually manages to cast a serious light on the issues of the day; whether it’s the onset of A.I.D.S., Bush Snr. & the first Gulf War, environmental concerns, the mounting threat of a rising conservative, republican, far right religious fanaticism in the US or any other topic from the last quarter century with any weight. And to the backdrop of all activism and awareness this we see out Dykes slowly grow older, taking on both the responsibilities of age and an increasing adoption of all aspects of mainstream culture. The idealism of youth is washed away by passing years and our Dykes suddenly find themselves as part of the next generation; turning from idealistic protest marchers to career women, from active singles to committed couples and onwards towards marriages, breakups and children.
(Mo reaches that point in her life where she’s suddenly not so young and radical. Although it may be a while before she notices. From a 2006 strip in The Essential Dykes To Watch Out For.)
Children, along with the long-term relationships that went with them changed the dynamic of Dykes To Watch Out For. And did so for the better. The real surprise when Bechdel does relax about a third of the way in is how sentimental she manages to be. Of course, (nearly) every page has it’s kicker of a punchline still, but there’s a mellowing with age, both Bechdel’s and her Dykes. And since everything in Dykes happens not quite in real time but near enough, the passage of time is obvious and welcome as the friends you’ve been reading about all these years are growing older, if not necessarily wiser alongside yourself. Certainly if you’re of an age where you did the majority of your growing up at some point during the last 25 years you’ll identify with so much of what goes on here. Whether it’s reliving the events and attitudes of the day or just relishing the nostalgia of pop culture and fashion reading through Dykes should have you continually catching little things away from the main narrative. And that’s all part of it’s impressive charm.
(Everyday life, in all it’s many and varied forms. Essential Dykes To Watch Out For from 2007.)
With anything like this, serialised and collected newspaper strips, it’s not one to be read in one go. That way lies stagnation and madness. Best to settle down over a few nights and let this magnificent saga unfold gradually. Dykes To Watch Out, just like the quarter century of life it captures, is best enjoyed slowly as the expanding lives of the characters are allowed to unfurl before you. One thing you should notice, partaking of the book this way is the continual evolution and refinement of Bechdel’s art. Just looking at the three examples of artwork from Dykes in this review shows the great changes Bechdel made over the course of the story, yet the style, the substance is still essentially the same. As with her art, so with her story, so with our lives. Essentially the same and essentially different.
I could go on and on about it, picking out this great page or that great page, but all you really need to know is just how wonderfully good it all is. It’s a wonderful gag strip, a great political strip and a perfect social strip. But best of all, you find yourself caring for the characters, sharing every emotion and realising that at the core of it all is a solid sense of values; friendship, family, social responsibility and making a difference in the world however you can. In fact it may well be the perfect soap opera comic. And I say that as a fine compliment in a medium where genuinely dramatic, genuinely funny and genuinely real characters and stories are hard to find, yet Alison Bechdel’s Dykes To Watch Out For is overwhelmed with them.
To end on, here’s a single illo Bechdel did for Christmas 2008 after beginning her sabbatical that gives us all hope that this isn’t the end of our favourite Dykes. Of the piece she says: “I’m finally starting to miss my DTWOF characters a little bit. I checked in to see what they were up to today, and got this skimpy glimpse.”